Column: Students and the Press

Gintautas Dumcius

Napoleon once said, “I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.” If all three had been run by Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat out of his bathtub, Napoleon would have even more cause for concern.But nowadays the situation is much different. Politicians do not fear the presses, and some, as it is in the case of the current White House, even choose to ignore it.

President Bush says he does not read the papers, instead choosing to hear the news from his supposedly objective advisors, several of whom, it was reported, would not give him a straight answer on how he did in the first debate with John Kerry at the University of Miami.Little surprise there, since the president appears to have as little respect for and understanding of the press as the nation’s youth does.

USA Today reported this week that in a survey of 112,000 high school students one in three of high school students believe “the press ought to be more restricted, and even more say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them, according to a survey being released today.” 36 percent thought “government approval” was necessary before printing a story.

“Asked whether the press enjoys ‘too much freedom,’ not enough or about the right amount, 32 percent say ‘too much,’ and 37 percent say it has the right amount. Ten percent say it has too little,” the paper stated. The survey took place a year ago and was conducted by the University of Connecticut.

This survey and others, taken of adults and college students and their administrators, shows the amazing lack of understanding many have of the First Amendment and its provision of freedom of the press. Instead, they seem to interpret it as freedom from the press.

The situation, which can be remedied by teachers actually going over the First Amendment in civics classes, extends to the college papers. Every year, and it is fair to say even every month, student newspapers get stolen or a paper gets into some sort of trouble. It might as well by a rite of passage by now.

The storyline is similar in each case: The student newspaper writes a story that the normally staid administration or the reliably wacky student government doesn’t like. Then the newspapers are taken by either said people from the stands or the loading docks and put into the trash (which, at UMass Boston, is conveniently right next to the loading dock, for those of you taking notes for future reference). Or the newspaper staff is threatened with getting locked out of their offices.

That very thing happened to the student newspaper of Florida Atlantic University last December. What the University Press did was pretty mild in comparison to other papers that have gotten in trouble, such as Purdue University (where a faculty member trashed their papers after they listed professors’ salaries) and Eastern Illinois University (where half of the print run was taken after the paper wrote a story about a band member allegedly getting sexually assaulted at a house party). The Press wrote about student government members giving themselves raises. Staffers believed the student government folks, in retaliation, tried to lock them out of their offices.

This paper, through its 40 history, has gone through similar incidents to the ones mentioned above.

In 2002, tensions rose between the student government and the paper when we printed an article on the university’s investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against the student trustee at the time. Copies were stolen from the stands the day they hit them.

Several months later, when the paper had a glossy twelve-page anti-abortion paid advertisement, as an insert, reaction was swift and fierce. Copies were strewn across the floor outside our offices, and apologies were demanded of the paper from “extremely disgusted” letter writers.

There was hardly a need for the paper to apologize. Never mind the fact that much of the editorial board, if not all of the staffers, were pro-choice. Never mind that the advertisement, from the so-called “Human Life Alliance,” did not break any laws (constitutional or otherwise) or Mass Media guidelines. Never mind that the ad manager of the time did not discuss the ad with the editorial board, since in the media this is to prevent potential ad revenue from influencing the opinion of the editorial board and the reporters.

One pro-life person did write a letter to the editor in support of the ad and the pro-life position. It wouldn’t have been surprising if the letter writers and some student groups had demanded an apology from the paper for putting that in, too. It seems it’s all well and good on both sides of the aisle until something, whether it’s a “wardrobe malfunction,” or a sponge with square pants, or a pro-life ad, offends someone and sends them into a frothing frenzy.

The paper quickly caved, writing an editorial that noted it had voted to change its policy to review “controversial” ads, including abortion material. It added, “Ads placed in this paper do not, in any way, reflect the views or opinions of The Mass Media Editorial Board.”Here’s to hoping that sometime in the future such disclaimers won’t be needed, and people will finally attempt to read what the Constitution and its Bill of Rights actually say about freedom of the press, not from it.

Gintautas Dumcius can be reached at [email protected].